Monday, June 27, 2011

Angus Calder – The People’s War: Britain 1939 – 1945

There are many histories of the Second World War. Most of them deal with the battles and military campaigns, or the leaders of armies and nations. Angus Calder’s book though is in some ways a very narrow history, because it looks at the War through the eyes of the people of Britain.
The British were told they were fighting a war for democracy and freedom, against tyranny. However for the majority of the people of Britain the world of democracy was not one of peace and justice, it was one of poverty and unemployment, of fear of the future and old age. The belief that the world should be a better place helps explain the introduction and the enthusiasm for the welfare state at the end of this conflict. The establishment knew this, Tory MP Quentiin Hogg commentated about the Beveridge Report that  "[i]t was not that it was a bible or a panacea, but it was a flag to nail to the mast, a symbol, a rallying point for men of goodwill - above all, an opportunity to re-establish a social conscience in the Tory party"?
One of the central threads to this history is class. Rationing was supposed to be for everyone, yet those with money could always find better food.  Take one quote from a young woman travelling with some salesmen, “Tyres? As many as you want – at the right place” he tells her smiling, when she overhears their deals. At a time of rubber shortages for the war effort, those with the cash could get what they need. This was particularly true in terms of housing. The “clearest area in which the rich stayed rich and the poor got poorer as a result of wartime conditions” argues Calder. In part this was because the immense bombing raids tended to hit the poorest parts of East London, in part is was because war workers had to be accommodated in villages and towns around the country and compensation wasn’t adequate. What made things worse was the way that those with larger homes, the ”upper middle classes” often took the least burden. In one case a town was declared full, when all the working class accommodation was full, but twenty-three town councillors have between them 66 rooms to spare.


Of course many of the wealthy didn’t think that they needed to contribute anything at all. During WW2, various councils asked citizens what public services they could do in the event of a Nazi invasion. In November 1942, from the West End of London came this response "My maid and I would be glad to help in any way from five to seven any evening except at week-ends, when we are always in the country".

The book is full of anecdotes, humour and insights that result from Calder’s reliance on the testimony of ordinary people. The unique Mass Observation system which encouraged people, through diaries, interviews and records to put down their thoughts on everything from the cost of food, to their attitudes to the Germans gives us a fascinating insight into life during wartime. Calder uses this sparingly, but often enough for us to almost understand what life was like. The pain and the suffering is always there, but so is the resistance and defiance – and not just of the enemy, but also of governments and politicians seen as being remote. This was a time of boom for authors and writers, books sold in vast quantities, despite the shortage of paper. Libraries were oversubscribed – the ones that survived the bombing.
One of the great aspects to this book is the way that Calder draws conclusions about the people’s ideas from less obvious sources. He quotes one social scientist who “undertook the ordeal of reading sedulously every book about the war published between the outbreak and the end of 1941”. The scientist is surprised and taken aback by the right-wing sympathies of the low-grade fiction, and “the prevalent anti-Semitic tone” half the books had a Jewish character and only in one case was the reference positive.
What Calder gets at here, is that whatever the war was being fought for, the image of a united, collective British people is mistaken. People had all sorts of ideas. Some wanted an end to Fascism, some wanted just to survive. Some would have worked with and helped the Nazis had they invaded. During the war, the absence of contested elections between the main parties allowed a number of more obscure parties to gain a hearing. The Communist Party vacillated all over the place, depending on the line from Moscow, even supporting Tory candidates at times, against socialists and anti-imperialists. The “Common Wealth” party gained a hearing, mixing popularist policies with demands for the immediate introduction of the Welfare State. This was early evidence for the swing away from Churchill towards Labour after 1944. Interestingly though, Labour couldn’t find it in themselves to build on this popularity. Reminding me of their activities post 1997, when expectations of actual policies were much more optimistic than Tony Blair delivered, the incoming Labour government in 1945 didn’t take the Welfare State or nationalisation program as far, or as quick as most voters expected (and hoped for).
There is so much that I found fascinating in Angus Calder’s book, that I feel that I cheat you by not including more. So I want to finish with one more quote that I think summarises why Calder was such a brilliant historian – this is the empathy with which he treats his subjects. Describing the thousands of children evacuated to the country early in the war, the trip chaotic badly planned and the ending disorganised. He tells how many of these children away from home and parents for the first time, in a countryside many had never visited with strangers looking after then, slept in strange beds, and
"Because they had bottled themselves up in the train or because they were upset at being parted from their parents, or because they thought the country darkness must harbour ghosts and were afraid to move, at the beginning of September, from Aberdeenshire to Devon, countless numbers of children wet their beds.”
It is a powerful image that Calder creates. Yet it was the first of many terrors for these children and their friends, family and all those who spent the war in the British Isles. Calder’s history is a monument to their courage and sacrifices, but it is a far truer account that you’ll get from those whose simplistic histories are ones were the war was won by the British stiff upper lip and a united country facing a common enemy.


Related Reviews

Angus Calder - The Myth of the Blitz

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pamela Horn - The Rural World 1780 - 1850 Social Change in the English Countryside

The period covered by this work of history is a period which saw an inexorable change to country life. From the late 18th century onwards, Britain moved from being an economy dominated by agriculture, to one where industry and the urban life was the major feature.

As late as 1811, agriculture made up a third of British GDP. As population rose dramatically during this period, the agricultural population peaked in 1851 at around 2 million active farm labourers. This was the first year were the urban population was larger than that of rural areas. It marked a moment of change for the country.

Pamela Horn's book charts this transformation. She does so with a sympathetic eye on the people who worked the land, usually for other people, often for a pittance of money or food. She shows how then, as now, economic changes impacted the people at the bottom of society and during the booms, they benefited the least.

But Horn has a knack for demonstrating how change occurs. There is no great inevitable transformation of agriculture for her. Nor does the increased mechanisation lead simply to smaller rural populations. Though these factors are important. She sees the transformation of the countryside as taking place as a result of numerous factors, which interact with each other in ways that start to bring great change. However alongside this, is a determined effort by the ruling class of the time to reshape the countryside.

The enclosure of land helped dramatically improve crop yields. Yet it could only take place with Acts of Parliament and their forceable imposition by armed bodies of men.Where resistance did take place, it slowed the transformation of the land and delayed the impoverishment of those who previously worked the land. The deliberate reshaping of the countryside in the interest of a tiny minority is a theme that runs in the background of much of the book. Horn demonstrates some of this through the way that gaming laws were viciously imposed from the 1770s onward, by a parliament dominated by wealthy landowners. The introduction of stringent laws against poaching, helped to protect game solely for the use of the landowner, but it was yet another nail in the coffin of a rural life that relied on "nature" being available for use by everyone.

The radical William Cobbet described the legal changes taking place as a move towards a rural society were there were "but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents". One aspect of this changes was the way in which the rich created an ideology were unenclosed land made the poorest lazy. Thus the enclosure process was one of making the poor work harder and be more useful to society.

Horn shows how the introduction of technology did change agricultural practices, but much of this was a more organic process, with new inventions and changes gradually seeping throughout the country. Later, as industrialisation bought more centralised factories to the fore of the capitalist system, this changed, but it often took agricultural societies, or learned farmers to change practises that had taken place for centuries. Rural change is a slow process, the scythe didn't replace the sickle in much of Britain until the mid-part of the 1800s.

Horn's book is packed with facts and statistics. It is of great use to the researcher, as a summary of the changes taking place that form the backdrop to the industrial revolution. To the casual reader it is a fascinating account of a changing world, that fundamentally shaped our own and leaves its imprint on the hedges and fences of the countryside today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nicholas Monsarrat - Three Corvettes

Detailing his time in the Royal Navy during World War II, Three Corvettes is actually Monsarrat's embellished diaries. The Corvettes were a small escort ship, used to bolster the limited number of destroyers as fast, offensive ships to help counter the threat from submarines. First published during the war, this is more than a war story. In fact for much of it, we feel the tedium of days at sea, long watches were nothing happens, yet crew members are constantly alert - for a change in the weather, for enemy aircraft, or the sound of something on the sonar.

There are of course moments of horror. Monsarrat details the crews they rescue from the sea after their ships are destroyed and those they cannot find. His stories are personal, emotional and powerful. They are also tragically painful. I'm fascinated that they were published during the war itself. Many of those depicted in these pages bought copies of the first volumes and read them during voyages that Monsarrat helped command. But my mind is fascinated by the reaction from those on shore who would have read them and perhaps understood for the first time what their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers were going through.

There is humour, Monsarrat has the eye for a good yarn, and in particular I enjoyed the messages flashed between ships, turning the vessels themselves into characters in a story. Describing the minesweepers looking for mines he writes that:

"you hear a 'WHOOMF!' You look round, and there is a small surprised ship scuttling away from a patch of boiling foam.... We once saw one of them almost overwhelmed by a gigantic explosion close astern of it: a huge column of water shot into the air, hiding the ship from us. When she emerged we called her up (feeling rather shaken ourselves) and said, a trifle patronizingly: 'That was a big one.' Her reply: 'What was?' put us in out place exactly."

The book tells the story of Monsarrat rise to captain his own ship. I suspect for many readers, myself included the sequence of stories and anecdotes will chiefly be of interest because it makes you realise how much of Monsarrat's most famous book, The Cruel Sea, is actually based on real experiences. In fact, some of the more horrific, or perhaps less believable parts of that work turn out to be based on the authors own time at sea. Reading this short biography makes The Cruel Sea an even more impressive novel.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gavin Stamp - The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

The battle of the Somme defies numerical analysis. Mere military statistics have little meaning when used to describe suffering and death on such a scale. Early on in this book Gavin Stamp sums up the battle with a quote from a military historian "a battle fought from July to November 1916 saw the British and German armies fire thirty million shells at each other and suffer a million casualties between them in an area just seven miles square".
Stamp avoid spending too much of this book on the actual battle. Though his brief summaries underline what was surely one of the greatest military wastes of human life in human history. Stamp's contempt for the a British military leadership "quite prepared to lose half a million men in the Somme campaign" who then "colluded with Douglas Haig after the war to falsify the record to try and protect his reputation" shines through powerfully. Further anger is reserved for the church and its leadership who preaching forgiveness, were prepared to "prostitute themselves to nationalist myths".

But the bulk of this book is about the memorials and the cemeteries in which the bodies of those who died are laid. In particular, the great, powerful Thiepal Memorial to the Missing is at the heart of this history. Prior to World War I, little effort had been made by the authorities to mark the place were men fought and died in their country's interest. After Waterloo, most ordinary soldiers were buried in mass graves. Yet the scale of the Great War meant a different response was required. A government that asked for sacrifice on this scale, could not be seen to ignore those who gave everything.

Stamp looks at the growth of the War Graves Commission, who from the early years of the War took on the task of recording graves of those who died and designing memorials. The great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was the man chosen for most of the monuments. His task was enormous. His designs were simple and powerful. Lutyens argued that the memorials and graves should not differentiate rank or religion. Despite protests, it became illegal to remove a body from France or Belgium back home. As Stamp remarks, once you joined up, your body, dead or alive, belonged to the King. Men were buried were they fell, the cemeteries marking the lines of the battle fields.

The scale of the task is summed up by the enormous arch at Thiepval. It is covered in the names of 73,357 names of those missing from the Somme battles. There are similar arches across the front lines. Lutyens designed graveyards for British soldiers across Europe, and in their simple elegance are a powerful reminder of the costs of war. Lutyens himself comes across as an interesting man. His designs do not glorify war, nor celebrate victory. They mark sacrifice and this seems appropriate.

Gavin Stamp's book is an architectural history. But it avoids the trap of seeing Lutyens' work as being outside of the world around. There is no doubt that his designs were the work of genius, yet they were also of their time. A break from the classical past, a precursor to a more modern architecture. Yet the hundreds of memorials designed by Lutyens, that mark villages across Britain and battlefields across Europe remain a powerful symbol of the pointlessness of the First World War. As Stamp concludes, "The Great War continues to haunt us because it was the ultimate war, innocence really was destroyed, and we can only hope that we are never asked to undergo what the men of 1916 endured".

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Miller - St Peter's
Watkin - The Roman Forum
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Friday, June 10, 2011

Walden Bello - The Food Wars

Much of Walden Bello's Food Wars covers ground discussed in Magdoff and Tokar's book which I reviewed previously here. Indeed Bello contributed a chapter to that volume, with the same title as this book. Nevertheless, there is much of use in Bello's short book, certainly it is very readable.

What Bello tries to do is to put the modern agricultural system in the context of capitalism. His argument is that capitalism has destroyed the old peasant based agrarian economies in the interest of creating a agricultural system based on the desire to make profits. This he says, isn't new. It began with the enclosure movements in England and continues today. In fact, he points out that the enclosures in England were almost unique for the extent to which they destroyed the peasantry, the "almost completely displacement of peasant agriculture" was "rarely repeated". For this reason, we have seen over the last centuries, policies that have gradually, and then with greater intensity destroyed the small-farmer and peasantry, replacing them with systems beloved of the major food corporations.

In three powerful case-studies, Bello looks at how Mexico, the Philippines and China have, in their different ways, become tools of international finance capital. The Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s and 1990s have, in the first two cases turned countries that were net exporters of food into countries reliant on imports. In the process, contrary to the claims of the IMF and World Bank, millions have been impoverished and hungry. China has, until recently, been an agricultural success story. Almost entirely self-sufficient, despite previous disastrous policies towards the peasantry, it's new turn toward the market threatens to undermine its own ability to feed its population. Once again we are seeing protests in great numbers in rural areas as people resist the drive towards agricultural for export and profit. 

The myths of agro-fuels as a solution to climate change are exposed here again. These are not carbon neutral, but rather are cash crops that make the multinationals rich. That names like Bill Gates and Richard Branson can crop up as part of the agro-fuel industry might give an inkling as to why recent US and EU governments have found this new crop so popular. At the very least Bello points out, these fuels do nothing to challenge the systemic problems with the system that is producing environmental disaster. It is also useful to note in passing that Bello shows that agro-fuels were not the primary driving force behind the recent food price rises, though they played an important contributory role.

Finally, Bello looks at the alternatives, basing many of his arguments on the peasant and small-farmer organisations, such as Via Campesina. He puts an excellent case for the importance of small-farms over massive mono-cultural industrial agriculture. Bello points out that mixed, family farms are more efficient, better for the environment and better for food than the enormous farms that produce a single crop. Localised production for national population is the way forward he argues.

I think this is interesting, but, as with my criticisms of Tokar and Magdoff's book, I think that this solution in part accepts the logic of capitalism, or perhaps the inevitability of capitalism. I've no doubt over the technical arguments, but I wonder if the actual farm size is the key point if we were to consider agriculture in a economy not driven by profit. I also think that the role of peasants and farmers is considered in isolation. Their struggles are important, but how can they be linked up with the urban poor, the working classes and the trade unionists. All these groups have an interest in fighting for better food, better agriculture, better environments and capitalism itself.

In conclusion then this is a useful book, easy to read, inspiring and devastating in its critique of modern capitalist agriculture, but it raised a large number of further questions in my own head.

Related Reviews

Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Pearce - PeopleQuake
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Fred Magdoff & Brian Tokar (eds) - Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal

The question of agriculture and food is one of the most pressing issues for society in the early 21st Century. It is inextricably linked to the questions of climate change and the environment, to the distinction between town and country and to issues of health, democracy and governance. This Monthly Review book is thus very important. It brings together some of the most important writers and activists on food issues who collectively put forward in a series of short, readable and incisive essays their thoughts on the current situation and possible solutions.

We live in a world were food is a marker of divisions. Its marks the differences between rich and poor and between the rich nations and the poorest. Within countries there are tremendous differentials between who gets to eat and who goes hungry. In the US, 17% of children under five are at high risk of developmental damage because of hunger. Not because they eat the wrong foods, or bad foods but because they don't have enough to eat. 36 million Americans are in "food insecurity" (these are 2007 figures). These figures have the power to shock, because they are from a country we consider affulent. We are used to the idea that Africa or Asia has millions of starving people. But for people to go hungry on such a scale in America or Europe is a surprise.

But many of the essays here point out that the causes of hunger in Africa and Asia, and that of those in richer countries have the same cause. This isn't that there is not enough food produced - at the height of the great crisis in food prices in 2008, there was still 1.5 times enough food to feed everyone at current demands. People starve in Africa, Asia and everywhere else because they are poor and cannot afford to eat. Over the last 20 years, food production as grown at around 2% a year. Population has grown at 1.14% on average. Food shortages aren't the problem, the distribution of wealth is.

But there are other contributing and related factors. Several powerful essays document the way in which global food production has become the sharp point of the battle to impose neoliberal mechanisms on the whole world. International bodies encourage the switch from localised production of food for consumption to mono-cultural agriculture for sale on the world market. This is nothing new - its been part of how the world economy has been shaped post World War II, but in the last two decades there has been a rapid acceleration of this change. Food was very much a weapon of the Cold War. Food aid was granted to win allegiance to one side or the other. But the US also helped to create markets for its own products. Out with local grains, in with US wheat. This continues today - wheat exports to Africa increased by 35% between 1996 and 2000. Cheap imports wipe out local production and help create the conditions were only food for international markets can survive.

I cannot hope to cover the impressive facts, figures and arguments within this book in this short review. Nor can I do justice to the alternatives that the various authors put forward. They argue that there are real changes that can be made, on national levels to avoid the various food, climate and social crises that are faced. Some of these are demonstrated by the very real improvements made by a number of left wing governments in Southern and Latin America. Chapters here on Venezula (without falling into the trap of lauding President Chavez from the rood top) demonstrate how by encouraging and supporting local, sustainable practices, yields of crops can dramatically rise, based on sustainable and ecologically rational choices.

If there are two problems with the book, I would say they are this. Firstly all the authors demonstrate that the problems of food production are ones based on capitalism. In particular, the concentration of food production and distribution into the hands of a few enormous corporations. This makes food and agricultural a tool of the desire to increase profits, rather than feed people. However simply advocating the encouragement of smaller, localised farming based on state support can fall into the trap of encouraging a belief that all these problems can be solved if only we elect governments that can blunt the worst aspects of capitalism. There is some truth in this of course. Venezuala and other places show this is possible to a limited extent, though they are still at the mercy of the world markets and the powers of western imperialism, which has, as the essays themselves demonstrate, smashed up similar, rational agricultural systems in the past.

Secondly, if we have identified the barrier that is capitalism, then we should at least acknowledge the debates about what an alternative could look like. In particular, the role of the peasants, smaller farmers and agricultural labourers in overturning the system. This is something that has preoccupied radicals from Prince Kropotkin, to Karl Kautsky, Marx and Lenin over the centuries. Several of the essays do refer to the importance of ordinary people taking back land from the rich, resisting their displacement and fighting to create the sort of agriculture they need. There is no real acknowledgement of the role of those people fighting against the system, once they become farmers, it is almost like that is enough for these writers.

These however are criticisms in the spirit of wanting to encourage more people ro read this book and think about the questions it raises. As one essayist asks, can capitalist agriculture really deliver for 9 billion people in an epoch when oil may well reach $300 a barrel. If, as seems unlikely we need to fight for a different way of doing things. The ideas within this book are important parts of those debates and offer some vision for the way forward.

Related Reviews

Marcel Mazoyer & Laurence Roudart - A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis

Friday, June 03, 2011

Diane Purkiss - The English Civil War, A People's History

Given the historical importance of the English Civil War, it is surprisingly little understood. At school we had a rudimentary introduction, which left me with little understanding of anything but a few battles between roundheads and cavaliers and a few place names – Marston Moor and Naseby for instance.
My schooling in this crucial juncture of world history was only taken further by Monty Python, whose surprisingly useful song about Oliver Cromwell sums up some of the key points in the events.
I suspect that my knowledge of the Civil War was as limited as many others. Which is why Diane Purkiss’ book is so important - her history is a brilliant introduction to a series of political events that are often dressed up in complicated imagery and difficult ideas. She also understands that the outcome of the Civil War was fantastically important for English, British and world history, calling it the “single most important event in our history”. It is also brilliantly readable.
Purkiss’ book is called a People’s History. Don’t fall into the trap though of thinking that this is “history from below”. For Purkiss, this title means letting the voices of the people (whoever they are) tell the story as much as possible. Using diary extracts, letters, speeches and pamphlets, the author lets us hear the voices of those central to the Civil War.  Equal weight is given to poets, MPs, monarchs, revolutionists, soldiers and townspeople. She herself admits that this approach brings with it “drawbacks” but concludes that her approach is important, because “constitutional reforms are important but only because they are eventually experienced by people”.
Here lies I think the books major problem. In part this is also her choice of title, calling the events that lead to the beheading of Charles I a “Civil War”, rather than a revolution. Purkiss consciously doesn’t take a position on this question, “Whether or not there had been a revolution, the regicides were men who had done the unthinkable and survived. But after Charles’s death, no one quite knew what came next.”
But the importance of the Civil War wasn’t the beheading of the king, though this was breath-taking in its bravery and ideological symbolism. Nor was it the constitution change that resulted from the victory of Parliaments forces over the monarch, though these were important for a myriad of reasons. The importance of the Civil War, and why it is right to call it a revolution, is that it was the first of such European events that “made the world safe for capitalism” to quote the historian Nora Carlin. At the start of her book, Purkiss points out that none of those involved in events had any inkling of what they were about to take part in, “There were political struggles, there was murmuring and discontent, but these disputes were well within the realm of normality”. This is of course true. But there was also a growing and increasing discontent with the method of Charles’ governance and the way it imposed limits and difficulties on those who increasingly wanted to make their money from the profits of trade and wage labour. I am aware that this is a simplistic explanation, shortened down for the sake of a brief review. But these tensions and new economic interests were expressing themselves in all sorts of waves – religious, ideological and political.
This can best be seen with the ideas that mushroomed at the bottom of society. The radical and political concepts for instance, that came to the fore during the Civil War, epitomised by the Levellers, the Diggers and a thousand other preachers and pamphleteers. These radical ideas could only have developed at a time when people’s lives were being shaped by wider forces, larger economic tensions and whole new concepts. That ordinary people didn’t like what was happening to their lives is demonstrated by the way that they took the opportunity to reclaim common lands that had been taken from them, or destroy property belonging to hated landlords.
So I think that Purkiss misses the point of what is happening in the mid-1600s and ends up seeing the process as almost being a social convulsion that gets out of hand. While I have nothing but praise for some of her treatment of radical ideas and individuals in the book, I don’t think she gets to the heart of why these helped to drive those, like Cromwell, to regicide, even though they would not have countenanced it a few years beforehand.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Diane Purkiss’ book is an excellent read, and she doesn’t shy from trying to tackle the difficult questions thrown up by the Civil War – particularly the nuances of religion. Her approach does bring the realities of the war to life. Particularly the descriptions of the battles and their consequences.  I was also impressed by her coverage of the lives of women and children, who often only receive walk on parts in books like these.
Purkiss is scrupulously fair. She gives as much time to the voices of the rich as the poor, to the royalists and the parliamentarians. To my surprise I enjoyed this. I thought the letters of Charles particularly interesting, as they showed just how isolated he was at the top of his mountain of privilege. His complete lack of comprehension of what was happening at his trial speaks volumes.
I would recommend this book to those who want to understand more about those times. Neither side comes out of it clean and heroic. War brutalises all. Purkiss is right to expose this in the face of the sanitised histories we often see. But she also brings out the radical and inspiring kernel to the story, that shows that there were people prepared to fight for a new world, with a myriad of exciting and powerful ideas. That in itself is a story to inspire us today.